Tuesday, August 30, 2011

“Superheroes” on HBO and the Real Life Superhero Movement.

I've written a lot about comics, thought a lot about what it would be like to be a superhero like Batman, no superhuman powers, just a costume and a desire to help out. The comics and films Kick-Ass and Watchmen are all about the idea of regular people who do just that, but they are also fiction. This month on HBO, a documentary aired about individuals who take to the streets of their communities in homemade costumes and try to help their communities in any way they can. The people who engage in this calling, hobby, whatever you want to call it refer to themselves as Real Life Superheroes. The film comes at the phenomenon from many different angles, alternately showing these heroes as inspiring, pathetic, courageous and partially unhinged at different points.

And yes, there are Real Life Supervillains, but they exist almost entirely on YouTube as parodies,
not committing real crimes. They simply mock and lampoon people in the RLSH scene.

The balanced take on the topic starting with the awkwardness of the movement, people in ridiculous suits who seem socially inept, most people who interact with them laughing at them or being patronizing in the way you might treat someone who is mentally handicapped. The police don't seem to know how to handle them, usually telling them to go home, that they don't want to see anyone hurt, a sentiment echoed by Marvel Comics' Stan Lee. Even the “super teams” that seem to have themselves fairly together and who could be taken somewhat seriously at first appear to be comprised of people who have something about them that is somehow a little... off. The people seem to be well meaning, but at first the question of “What would this be like?” can be answered with one word: “Lame.”

The documentary interviews many people and groups, but focuses on a few for most of the film. The New York Initiative, four roommates who train in weapons and martial arts and set up “bait patrols” in Brooklyn attempting to catch muggers trying to molest one of their own. Mr. Xtreme is portrayed as an awkward loner who moves into a van, watches Power Rangers and goes with his mother to a martial arts tournament where, as a white belt hoping to earn a higher rank, he gets his ass kicked. Zetaman, his wife Apocalypse Meow and the Jewish masked hero called Life focus on handing out clothes and food to the homeless in their communities. Dark Guardian's background as a martial arts instructor gives him confidence in his confrontations with DC drug dealers with the help of his sidekick, The Cameraman. Thanatos, the Dark Guardian, dispenses sage wisdom about what it all means, and the former Pro Wrestler (and generically-named) Super Hero shows off his cool gear, including a red sports car with “SUPRHERO” on the license plate. These last two are members of a super-team that also has the most colorful figure in the film.

Even if he is a nut, I'm glad someone like Master Legend is out there,
that he really exists outside the realm of fiction.

Team Justice is an officially recognized Non-Profit Organization based on the activities of an allied group of individuals mostly based in Florida (though Thanatos is active in British Columbia, Canada.) Whether organizing Christmas toy drives, going on patrol for criminals, dispensing food, helping anyone in need by means mundane or adventurous, there is no question that they do a lot of good. They also have as one of their founding members the most interesting individual in the RLSH community, and almost certainly the one who has been active the longest. He may also be certifiably insane. Master Legend believes he was born with a purple veil over his eyes, that he's died multiple times and that God listens to him. He is eccentric, drinking on the job (though he claims never to excess) and has a Swiss WWII army helmet, a modified potato cannon and a home welded “iron fist” that can punch through doors. He claims he started his career at age nine in New Orleans, learning to fight under the cruel influence of his Klansman parents, and beating up a local bully wearing a mask made from an old shirt.

By the end of the film, actual incidents of doing good, if not high-action comic book fare are caught on tape, and even Mr. Xtreme is honored by the Mayor of his city, and begins to recruit others for a super team of his own. Many of the RLSH individuals wear armored bodysuits and carry mace and tasers for personal protection, and seem pragmatic about the possibility that someone may shoot or stab them. Their visibility as symbols often is enough to stop trouble, and drug dealers sometimes give up in frustration when these masked and caped crusaders are about, because no one wants to buy drugs with a bunch of costumed vigilantes standing right there. A refusal to give up, to turn away when they see something wrong makes these people who they are, several of them inspired by the murder and rape of Kitty Genovese who died because people didn't want to get involved. This same story factored into the origin of Watchmen's Rorshach, a fictional hero who would be right at home with Master Legend and Thanatos.

Notably absent from the documentary is any mention of one of the most famous and controversial figures in the RLSH community, Seattle's Phoenix Jones. Jones is the leader of the Rain City Superheroes and has been vocal in his criticism of anyone who calls themselves a superhero but limits their activity to costumed charity work. He's derided them in the media, calling them "Real Life Sandwich Handlers."  This has not made him many friends, nor has the incredible amount of publicity he's garnered through his publicist, leading many to criticize him as someone who is involved primarily for personal fame and attention. Journalists and police have had difficulty in establishing how many of Jones' claims are unverifiable but true, or if some of the things he has said to reporters are fabrications or exaggerations. Frequently, other heroes will not work with a journalist who is doing a story on Jones, so this may have factored into the filmmakers' decision to leave him out.

In more recent news, a British superhero calling himself The Statesman gave aid to police during the recent riots in England, escorting scared travelers through areas with roving gangs of thugs. He also directly assisted police in performing arrests, and performed a citizen's arrest of a looter himself during the chaos. The movement, and the film showing it from as many perspectives as possible while retaining entertainment value are both very interesting. I applaud the intent and courage, if not every specific action performed by these people, and recognize the power of them as symbols. I just hope that as more people take up cape and cowl that we don't hear about one of them turning up dead from a gun or a knife. The real life superhero would, as a general rule, say that is a risk that comes with the job.
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Alpha said...

Time to create some supervillains!

Jay said...

worth a look, thanks. :)

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